Designing for Makers and More (Week 5 Update)

This is part five in a series detailing updates to our research into makers working contract jobs. You can read part one here and part two here, part three here, part four here, and you can find information on our research here.

Design Team: Kyle Beck, Sean Redmond, Lauren Sands


We are in week five of our quarter-long project where we have been building on our previous research of the financial behaviors of contract workers in creative industries (i.e., “makers”). After considering stakeholder feedback from last week and evaluating the financial viability of both Slider and Foresight, we narrowed our focus to Foresight, and will be spending the rest of the quarter prototyping and proving viability.  


Foresight is a financial app for contract workers who are looking for solutions to the administrative headache of being self employed. What sets this application apart from competitors is the integration of invoicing and saving. Foresight allows users to determine the percentage of their invoice they would like to dedicate to checking and savings accounts at the same moment the invoice is being created. Then, it automatically sorts those funds accordingly once they are received. Furthermore, you can use the software to create savings goals by category and move funds easily between those sub-accounts, without having to create actual separate bank accounts.


Progress Made This Week

This week, we focused on synthesizing the feedback we received last week from potential users as well as experienced investors. We built a prototype of Foresight and updated a Splash Page to better communicate the functionality and value we could bring to users.

Our three major goals:

Build Prototype

Foresight (as we are currently imagining it) will need access to user’s bank accounts and have the ability to move money from one account to the other. This means we would need highly sensitive information, and we do not feel comfortable holding this information for our users at this time. The software and development it would take to build a full application is also quite significant. We’ve built a prototype of the Foresight app to serve as a proxy. With this prototype service we will build invoices for our users based on the information they send us in a form they provide us, and then we will follow up with them to remind them how much they selected to move to their savings account. While this isn’t as effortless as we imagine the functionality of our future application will provide, we believe that it still offers the core accountability to help independent contract workers save more regularly.

Prove Need

We think if people are willing to use our prototype, it will help us prove the viability of a future, fully built product. We’ve reached out to potential users in our network (including all of the individuals we interviewed during the research phase of this project), and also cast a wider net through Craigslist and Facebook ads. So far, we have had 3 users commit to using our prototype. Currently, we will be providing Foresight to these individuals free of charge.

Refine Product

At the same time we are operating and marketing our prototype, we are working to further define what our full product will look like and making decisions about full functionality. To achieve this we have begun to refine story boards and build low-fidelity wire frames showing what a future the fully build Foresight application will look and feel like.

Next Steps

Over the next week, we will continue working in parallel on our detailed design idea as well as driving users of our more paired down prototype. We plan to get feedback from those who become users of our prototype, and incorporate necessary improvements into the prototype as well as the plans for our fully designed application.


Designing for Makers (and More): Week 4 Update

This is part four in a series detailing updates to our research into makers working contract jobs. You can read part one here and part two here, part three here, and you can find information on our research here.

Design Team: Kyle Beck, Sean Redmond, Lauren Sands


We are in week four of our quarter-long project using our research into the financial behaviors of contract workers in creative industries (i.e., “makers”). Through interviews with potential users of our products, we have narrowed our focus to two of our most exciting and well received ideas. This week we built pitch decks and gathered feedback from individuals who have experience either pitching ideas or investing in businesses.

Primary Goal

This week’s goal was to further test the interest in our products as well as interest in investing in a business built around our product. We did this through meeting with subject matter experts as well as through creating landing pages online and attempting to drive traffic and sign ups for our concepts.

Slider: A swipe-based program that helps you decide what to eat by showing you pictures of food that you can swipe left on (reject) or swipe right on (accept). You can decide whether to use the app to find restaurants or recipes to cook at home. If you’re eating out with friends, you can match with friends to help determine a restaurant that is of interest to everyone. You can create a profile and save favorites and share them with others, helping to build a community and encourage greater use.

Our splash page – Slider – was a great exercise in communicating very concisely what our concept was about. However, to date we have not received any sign-ups.

Foresight: An invoice app for contract workers that allows you to determine what percentage of your invoice to dedicate to checking and savings accounts. It automatically sorts those funds accordingly. Furthermore, you can use the software to create savings goals by category and move funds easily between those subaccounts, without having to create actual separate bank accounts.

Our splash page – Foresight – was also a great exercise in clearly communicating our concept, and drove us to further define our product. However, we also have not received any sign ups. We believe that this may be a reflection of our expertise in driving online advertising and will focus on improving that first, before adjusting our overall product concept.


We met with six people to get their feedback on our concept. Interviews lasted roughly 1 hour each. We walked each person through a rough draft of a pitch deck that explained what our product idea was, why it was needed, and what our unique value proposition was in the market.

We asked for questions and feedback throughout our conversations, and also debriefed with each individual afterward to better understand how our overall pitch could be improved.


Our major take away from this week of conversations was that our products need to be much more clear before we can create a viable or productive pitch deck to be shared with potential investors. Without a well-formed idea it was difficult to even start thinking about pitching to investors. 

Slider:  We got really great feedback from potential users last week, but we still needed to figure out how we would make money from this idea. Would the users looking for a restaurant pay to use the app? Would it be subscription based? Would we eventually have enough eyes on our site to make advertising revenue feasible?

What about the restaurants? Were they potential customers? How could we start to think about addressing a pain point for restaurants while at the same time meeting a proven need of their customers?

We settled on the idea of helping restaurants drive volume during off-peak hours through incentives presented to potential patrons as they were using the app. Restaurants would pay for this service and drive our revenue. 

Foresight: Figuring out how to pitch this idea proved to be a bit more challenging. We were most excited about the idea of allocating funds to a checking or savings account at the point when the invoice was sent, as opposed to when it was received. This meant it would help our users save for future goals or for taxes, while helping to eliminate the urge to spend money when one’s bank account swelled well above its normal amount.

This idea, however, is really just a feature of a larger product. We explored lots of other features and ideas that would benefit our population of makers, but in a week, we weren’t able to get to a cohesive idea of a product that would be a one-stop-shop for financial management while highlighting our “magic sauce” of invoice allocation.

Next Steps

This week, we want to get back to the product itself without worrying too much about how to pitch it. The nuts and bolts of what exactly is this product, how will it work, the mechanics behind the scenes, and what additional problems might we be solving for people as they use the products.


Designing for Nontraditional College Students

According to a recent study conducted by RTI International, 74% of American undergraduate students are “nontraditional”. This is defined as:

Being over 24 years old
Having a GED
Having a child
Being a single parent
Waiting at least one year after high school to start college
Being a first-generation student (first in family to attend some form of college)

These nontraditional students are less likely to graduate, and if they do graduate, it rarely happens in 4 years. With the rising cost of post-secondary education, “nontraditional” students are carrying an ever-increasing financial burden. This burden is most significant for those individuals who do not graduate at all. In fact, those who do not finish their degree are three times as likely to default on their loans.

College, it seems, has been design for a “traditional” population that is now the minority of those actually attending these schools.

Over the next 8 weeks, I will be conducting research to better understand the experience of nontraditional students attending colleges and universities so that I can ultimately design products and systems that will support these students in their journey to graduate in four years.

The University of Texas is currently working  to support these students, and is in the process of developing a new learning model based in competency-based education.  It’s believed that this will work better for those students who are limited on time. To encourage these students to continue and complete their courses, I’ve been tasked with developing a set of viable concepts for visualizing a student’s progress through UT’s new education app.  Through both primary and secondary research, my hope is to take this assignment a bit further, and first validate that this app will solve the main challenges that “nontraditional” students are facing. I’ll use this research to define the problem space, generate insights, and ultimately design for improving the experience and graduation rate of “nontraditional” students.

Ethical Decision Making

“Everybody has a plan until they punched in the face.” – Mike Tyson

This is a quote I think about often. I think it’s really important to have a plan, and I also think that plan is most likely going to fail.

In our conversations around ethics and building an ethical framework, this Mike Tyson quote has been echoing in the back of my mind. Particularly because his answer is in response to a question he received about his upcoming fight with Evander Holyfield–an opponent he ended up loosing his heavy weight title to.

I’ve been thinking about my framework really in the context of working for a company after my time at AC4D. It’s in three parts. First, how can I set myself up for a job, career, or situation where the decisions being made are starting from solid ethical ground.  After a lot of introspection around the companies I’ve worked with or consulted for, I’ve summarized that first step like this:

Ethical Framework 2

When a company has a clear mission (both internally and externally), when they are building products that actually align with that mission, and when the financial incentives are aligned for the customer and the company, I’ve seen that there is a much more stable scenario for ethical decision making.

That’s my plan, knowing that even if I follow that exactly, I’ll be punched in the mouth. So, the second layer of my ethical framework involves weight absolutes on a scale. For example, “this is only harming people-this is only helping people” or “I am designing for one-I am designing for all”.

At the bottom of my framework, and something powering the entire thing is my brain. To make the best decisions, and decisions I personally believe to be ethical, I think a grounding reality is that my brain needs to be operating at its highest possible level. Mental health, physical health, and a commitment to constantly learning feed my brain at its best.

An abstraction of my framework as it currently stands:

framework 5


Myanmar, Facebook, and Regulation

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Myanmar for a few days while traveling in Southeast Asia. It was the beginning of 2016, and Myanmar had only been open to the outside world for 3-4 years at that point. For me, it was amazing to see a country so untouched by western influence–there wasn’t a Starbucks or McDonalds in sight, though there was one KFC at the airport.

Of anywhere I’ve traveled, the Burmese people were by far the most warm and friendly. I happened to be there on a national holiday, and this street had been closed off by the people that lived nearby and both kids and adults were enjoying participating in various relay races.


When my husband, sister, and I stopped to watch the fun, a few teenagers immediately came over to us to offer us a balloon and to invite us to join in on the fun.

The country has gone through massive changes since it opened to outside investment. When the telecom market was initially deregulated in 2012, less than 1% of Burmese people had access to the internet. By the time I visited just a few years later, over half of the country had a cell phone and was accessing the internet regularly. Facebook served as the main app for these new mobile adopters, and for many, news and Facebook were one and the same.

It wasn’t long before fake news started to spread, and fear began to build about potential future violence from the minority group of the Rohingya. This lead to extremist attacks against the Rohingya and eventual genocide against this minority group taken out by the Burmese government.

There’s been and is still a huge amount of conversation around Facebook’s unwillingness to quickly respond and regulate the inciting comments that built online against this population. Many are even going so far as to blame Facebook for the genocide. But the situation got even more complicated whenever studies started to uncover that it very well may have been an organized campaign against the Rohingya, planned by the Burmese government that eventually carried out this violence. This is the same government that seemed to have so radically shifted to an open and democratic system just a few years before.

Using this example as a way of fleshing out my personal ethical framework, I’ve found myself asking two questions that seem at odds with each other. First, should tools like Facebook be a platform or a publisher? And second, and maybe more importantly, you may trust the regulator now, but what if the regulator changes?

Capture 2

What I’m most struck by, is that this isn’t the first time the Burmese government has persecuted this population. Thanks to Facebook, however, it might be the first time the people of Myanmar have had an opportunity to hear and read outside voices on what has really happened in their country.


Is your desire for privacy actually hurting others?

It’s arguably harder than ever to keep information private in this modern age. Photos are taken digitally, shared, and then impossible to recover. Search history is gathered, triangulated, and then used by major businesses to predict and influence future behavior–often without any expressed consent.

Recently, Google’s Project Nightingale has come to the forefront of the conversation around healthcare data and privacy because one of the most powerful companies in the world has gained access to one of the largest known data sets of personal health information through a partnership with America’s second largest healthcare provider.

Google says its mission as a company is “to organize the world’s information”, and by gaining access to this health data they are going to be able to do a lot of good in the world. But many are very skeptical about. Shockingly, it was never communicated to the patients or their doctors that this data had been shared. But perhaps even more shocking is the fact that this data (on over 50 million Americans) is non-anonymized.

Google already knows quite a bit about the individuals that use their search engines and other tools. The risks of them having this much additional non-anonymized data seems extremely risky. What if they take this data and use it to discriminate against people for things like medical coverage or life insurance? What if an employer could pay Google a fee to see all of one’s health information as a way of augmenting a future employee’s standard background check? There are seemingly countless examples of why this work might be risky for individuals.

But, I also want to explore what the positive side of this work might be. Let’s walk through a typical person’s medical journey when they receive a diagnosis. Often, someone shows symptoms. They go to a doctor to explain these symptoms and if they are lucky that first doctor has an idea of what is going on and gives them a diagnosis.  The doctor may listen to the patient talk about their symptoms, take a look at a few things on their physical body, take the patient;s temperature, run a test or two and then give a diagnosis. Maybe this patient has the flu. That seems pretty straight forward.

But what about when it’s more complicated than that. What if this doctor considers all of the patients symptoms and test results and recommends that the patient go see a specialist.

Often, going to a specialist requires the patient to get a copy of their medical records from the current doctor (maybe from just this appointment but quite possibly from all historical appointments), which includes copies of test results that could digital or hard copy, copies of appointment summaries that could be digital or hard copy, and then bring those records to the new doctor often BEFORE the appointment so that the specialist has time to review those documents. These documents are often sent by snail mail, by fax, by email, by online portal, or sometime, and in my personal experience, have to be hand delivered from one doctors office to another because their digital systems don’t work, the fax machines aren’t working that day (do fax machines ever actually work?), and snail mail will be too slow.

Now think about that being further exacerbated by someone who receives a critical diagnosis. Maybe they have cancer, or a need for surgery. That’s often a team of doctors that need the patient’s medical history. Imagine deciding you want a second opinion. It can become completely overwhelming for even the most organized patient, and often information gets lost in all of these transactions. Tests are retaken over and over again, and the patterns that could have been noticed over time are not noticed because the files often end up as a stack of large papers.

To further illustrate how complicated this process can be, I sketched out a scenario that I personally experienced a few years ago-from initial doctor visit about symptoms to the eventual need  for surgery. There was an enormous amount of paper work that needed to be moved but also an unbelievable amount of time I had to spend just shuffling physical or digital papers from one place to another.

slice v2

For an individual that doesn’t have the capacity to go through all of this effort (many of these scenarios are kicked off due to an illness of some kind, after all), they are stuck not receiving the care they need, or receiving it on a MUCH slower timeline than they need it. What about people who work hourly jobs, and don’t have the luxury of taking a 2 hour lunch to run some of these documents from place to place?

When I think back to all of the time I spent shuffling information around and calling doctors and logging into new portals and then pause to consider that one day there might be an option for those doctors to simply log into a system that looks like a google search engine, type in my name, and then immediately have access to every test result or doctor visit I’ve ever had, I have to admit it reframes the obvious risks.

Beyond the risks of this data being used to exploit, I think it’s also important to ask the question – Is it unethical to NOT engage in large scale data collaborations like Project Nightingale if these project have the very real ability to significantly improve health and even save lives at an unprecedented scale and speed? I wonder how many people right now are sick and will continue to be only because all of their health history is scattered among multiple doctors and cities and systems. If that person could be cured by simply pulling all of that health history into the same place for one doctor (or machine) to process, then how do we weigh the risk?

Facilitating Inclusive Design

Last week I facilitated a 30 minute conversation around inclusive and exclusive design. A group conversation surrounding readings we completed before class is always helpful in processing new information, but I also wanted to use this as an opportunity to prompt ideas for each of our personal design frameworks.

My hope was that everyone walked away from our conversation with an open mind to what in an inclusive design might mean.

To begin our group discussion, I introduced two key definitions from Microsoft’s Inclusive Design Tool Kit.

“Inclusive Design: A design methodology that enables and draws on the full range of human diversity.”

“Accessibility: 1. The qualities that make n experience open to all. 2. A professional discipline aimed at achieving No. 1”

A more succinct way a fellow student suggested for thinking about these concepts is that inclusivity gets you a seat at the table, accessibility is if you can participate in the activity once you are there.

After a brief discussion of these terms, we walked through some basic consideration to be made whenever engaging in inclusive design. I would consider this the weaker part of my group facilitation, and if I were to engage in the exercise again I would move this to the end of the session. I was hoping to start a list of considerations that we would then build on, but it turned out that the next bit of conversation I had planned was much more effective at soliciting group participation.

Screen Shot 2019-11-12 at 5.32.06 PM

The most successful part of this facilitated discussion began when I introduced a scenario: A venture capitalist has come to our design group with a directive to use our “design skills” to develop a new body soap product. This investor will let us take it from there, so it’s up to us to create a soap that we personally believe is ethical and inclusive.

To prompt discussion and thinking, I asked the group to first consider how they might make the most exclusive soap possible. By using a more simple product like soap (as opposed to a complex system or interaction) we were able to quickly think of ways to make it exclusive, such as: 

  • Expensive
  • Bacon fat included
  • Skin color altering
  • Requiring complex technology
  • Time intensive to use
  • Short lasting results
  • Something that must be assembled each time
  • Only a set number created

While some silly ideas emerged, it helped us think in larger buckets of who might be excluded by design decisions. Beyond just age, or race, or income, it’s possible to be exclusive on the basis of time constraints, access to technology, or dietary choices.

From there we flipped the conversation and used the traits we listed to understand how to better design an inclusive soap.

Overall, the exercise was a bit silly, and intentionally so. I was hoping to solicit conversation or bring up ideas that we hadn’t had before. 

In the end, maybe the most interesting piece of the conversation was around feasibility of inclusive design. Since the exercise required a focus on extremes, it brought about the conversation of what to do when a design elements are in direct opposition to each other. 

This lead to a conversation about “growing the pie”, and figuring out how to serve a new population, while not forgetting the original.

The resulting element I personally chose to add to my framework as a result of this facilitated session was a test I could ask myself around the design of any system, interaction, or product in the future. Can I add any other population or user need to this design without completely cutting out another population? i.e. Can I grow this pie without detracting from it at the same time?

Makers and their Money

Continuing with our work from last weekKyle, Sean, and I have continued to speak with makers in the Austin area who rely on contract-based employment. We’ve had the opportunity to learn from artists, craft workers, and construction workers about their attitudes toward money, and about how they make ends meet whenever they are completely reliant on variable income


Below, are a few stories of the people we have spoken with and what we’ve learned from them.

Jordan is a construction worker. He moved to Austin from Michoacán, Mexico in 1998. He came to work, but went to high school first, in Del Valle, just south of Austin. He enjoyed high school, playing soccer and running cross country, and he learned to speak English. When he graduated, his first job was laying carpet and flooring. Since then, his jobs have shifted: he performed stone work for a while, and now does carpentry. He lives with his wife and four children in a home in south Austin, a home that he lost during the Great Recession but was able to buy back later, at lower cost, in a fortuitous turn of events. He’s since paid off his house, but he’s now paying back loans on a new car and truck. He’s hoping he might be able to save for his daughter to go to college, but so far, it has been difficult. “I guess we’re never happy because we pay [our bills] and then we decide to go and get into debt again,” he laments. Although he’d like to have a “normal job…be an employee and just kind of take it easy,” he says, he likes the variety of his work and the fact that he always gets to learn new skills. He’s proud of his abilities and invests in his tools regularly, so that he can always find work. As he says, even when the contracts slow down, “you got bills to pay, and they don’t wait.”

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Becca and Carrie run a creative studio specializing in signage, wayfinding, and art. They met in Nashville in 2012, but moved to Portland a year later so Carrie could study acupuncture. Disillusioned, she dropped out two years later, and the two moved to Austin. Becca is an artist who dropped out of her program during the Great Recession. Upon moving to Austin, she began working as an artist’s assistant, but she hated it. After getting paid $800 for a sign-painting gig, she decided to start her own business. Carrie now works alongside her, handling much of their administrative and financial management. The two have found success, mainly in the restaurant industry; every time they go out to eat, it seems, they find a new client. Like many contract workers, they find work through networking and word of mouth. After a tumultuous year of success and disappointment, including canceled corporate gigs and unplanned tax expenses, the two are working to build their way out of credit card debt. “We have insane credit cards, not like normal people credit cards,” Becca says. But it’s worth it to finally live out her dream. As she tells us, “If you don’t build your own dreams, someone else will hire you to build theirs for them.”


Pete is an artist who “escaped Oklahoma in 2008” and moved to Austin in the middle of the recession. He graduated from college with degrees in graphic design, illustration, and studio art. After graduation he applied to over 3,000 jobs (he counted) and didn’t get one. He was struggling to make ends meet and remembers at one point being close to “literally starving to death.” He’s been working in the area long enough that he’s built a great reputation for himself and people call him when they need him. He said he likes it that way. People call him when they need him and he can say yes or no. He’s a jack of all trades, and works in audio, lighting, design, and recently has been getting into the photography business. When we asked him about his month to month income he said it was hard to separate his income from the way he thinks about his budget at all. “Basically, the way I think about it is that I have an overhead, and then I think about how much I need to work to cover that.” During his time in Austin, he’s been a frequent victim of gentrification–one year getting gentrified 5 times and in one of those moves was given just 15 days to move out and find a new place. This is particularly challenging for him as he has equipment that he must store at his home and then move from place to place.

Emerging Themes

We have several people left to speak with, but already some themes are emerging from this research.


Rely on their networks and relationships for work, and for increased stability over time.

Have to be in control to allow for a free flow of creativity

Are their own safety net. Confidence is a huge factor in success

Don’t compromise on their dreams and they don’t want to use their skills to build someone else’s dreams

Are system outlaws




How to Be an Ethical Designer – In Practice

When talking about design, and the techniques that designers use, it’s almost impossible to leave the topic of ethics out of the conversation. Designers are able to create useful products, systems, and interactions by intimately understanding the way humans operate. Good designers go beyond understanding what a person does, and they understand why that person does what they do, how they feel when they do it and even why they feel that way. That understanding can lead to some really great solutions to big problems. But, it can also lead to opportunities for manipulation of the user.

In our Design Ethics class, we have been exploring what it means to create ethical design. There really isn’t any universal right or wrong in ethics, and design doesn’t have a formal code of ethics, so it is up to each designer to make these ethical decisions on their own.

This class is giving us an opportunity to explore ethical questions, and to build an ethical framework for ourselves of what we personally believe to be ethical. I’m still processing a lot of what I’ve learned over the last couple of weeks, but something that keeps coming to mind for me is the connection between building a framework and then implementing that framework.

At AC4D, we are studying this information in great detail, so the conversations we are all having about ethical design are with others who are educated on and interested in the topic. And that’s certainly valuable. But in May, that’s over. I hope to have a job lined up by then, and most likely I’ll be walking into a business environment where few, if any, of my colleagues are educated in or even aware of the ethical impact design can have. I’ll be armed with my personal framework by then, but I think the hardest part is going to be communicating the value of those ethical decisions in a way that someone else will understand or even care.

This is further compounded by the fact that many dark patterns in design actually do benefit the business, at least in the short term. They trick people into spending more time on a website or buying more product. I wanted to explore how I might be able to communicate my own ethical boundaries when faced with an environment where I’m the only one thinking about these choices through an ethical lens.

To do so, I’ve called on my previous profession as a nonprofit fundraiser. In fundraising, your end goal is to raise money for an organization. At my last organization, our mission was to place post-9/11 military veterans into industry careers. All of the money that is raised goes directly toward that mission, but people give for lots of different reasons. Some people give because they had directly benefitted from our program, while others gave because they knew they wanted to give back to their local community, and we were able to provide them with solid stats on our success rate to convince them that we were a good investment.

These different temperaments are usually referred to as the  “7 Faces of Philanthropy”.

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This framework really helped me in fundraising because I had my own reasons for caring about our mission to help military veterans, but communicating why I cared wasn’t always going to resonate with people. I would have to meet them where they were most interest and communicate with them that way.

I’ve incorporated this way of thinking into the ethical framework I’m building, and have started to think about how I will communicate my personal ethics in a way that makes sense and matters to future colleagues. Understanding those colleagues and their motivations will allow me to speak with them about these ethical topics but in a language that makes sense to them.

This is a potential group of colleagues, and an attempt at understanding what they might care about most:

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Using this as a tool, I can come up with scenarios with ethical implications and see how to best communicate my concerns with this wide variety of colleagues. For example, let’s say I work for a company that is sending a massive amount of emails and not giving a clear way for users to unsubscribe from those emails. To simply say “I don’t think this is ethical because we aren’t giving our users any agency to make decisions about whether or not they want to receive these emails” I think a better approach would be to meet my colleagues where they are. For the lawyer who is constantly evaluating risk for the company, it might be updating him on the recent LinkedIn case, and letting him know that this type of behavior is starting to create some real legal issues for companies. For the founder of this company, it might be the money he stands to loose by a drop off in frustrated customers. I could encourage him to give his customers more agency with the emails and take a more long term approach. The better his customer retention is the more money he can make in the long run.

Over the rest of the quarter, I’ll be continuing to build my own ethical framework, while at the same time thinking about how to best communicate these topics with a future colleague who has no background in this way of thinking.

So…what exactly is going on here…?

Part of our experience as design students has been figuring out how in the world to even explain what it is that we are going to school for.  “I’m going back to school to study design!” we’ve all said to a friend or family member. “Oh, how cool…like interior, or fashion design”? For a while, I personally tried responses like “No, more like design strategy”, or “No, I’ll be learning to use design to solve problems”. But, those responses typically fell flat. You, too, may also be pretty confused by reading that.

To be honest, after many failed attempts at explaining what I would be doing, I just started to quietly glance down at my generic amazon jeans and worn-in tennis shoes. I would look around my apartment filled with mismatched Ikea and West Elm furniture, and would sigh a bit while responding “Yup. Exactly. Fashion design.”

It’s becoming clear that this isn’t just a problem we face as students, but a challenge we are going to face repeatedly as professional designers as well. We will need to be able to describe what we are working on but also how we are approaching that work and why we are approaching it in that way.

Since the middle of August we have been learning standard design research methodology, and then putting into practice with a client in the Austin community. We’ve also been learning how to communicate our work and its value. Explaining that methodology and its value has been a challenge for us as a team, and it’s something Dan, Leah, and I are focusing on as we move forward in this program.


The standard methodology is usually explained like this:

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You conduct research, and then you make sense of the research. In this part of the research phase, you first make a plan for how to do the research, and then report back some stories to your client about the people you have spoken to.

In the second phase, you make sense of the data, of the people you have spoken with. This includes printing out every single word that was uttered in a conversation, and then pinning them on the walls in your work space. Looking at all of those conversations together helps you find patterns, or themes. After some themes emerge, you would jump into service slices. A service slice is a way of intensely dissecting a conversation to understand more about what is being communicated. Then, and only then, can you move ahead into the process to the elusive, but ever valuable insights. An insight is an instinct about why you think those themes are emerging.

In practice, of course, some of this work may not be so linear and former steps aren’t left behind when advancing to the next. Stories from the field, for example, will be woven in with most of the work, even as one moves ahead to themes or insights. This is because service design, at it’s core, is about people. It’s about telling their unique stories. It’s not an archetype of the general  public it’s about the uniqueness of each individual. To build a case and make a convincing argument for a design idea, designers have to share the stories of the people they interviewed, and take others along the ride with them so that the eventual solutions make sense. We aren’t building graphs built on numbers to explain what’s happening in the world – we are deeply exploring and trying to understand just a few people and use their unique experiences, behaviors, and emotions to spark ideas for new things that don’t yet exist.

Applying this knowledge.

For our project with HOPE Farmers Market, and for our 4th assignment we have focused on service slices. At first, a service slice really only makes sense to the person doing the work. Here’s an example:

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While it is certainly complex in this initial format, creating services slices really proved to be a revealing process. That diagram was created from just a 30 minute conversation. Once you dive into these service slices, you begin to realize just how much is happening during a conversation.

This jumbled mess can’t really be presented to a client, or anyone outside the project team, but sometimes a distilled version of what you’ve captured can aid in storytelling or in conveying a concept.

For the Farmers Market, we mapped several of our conversations with vendors, and what stood out to us is that nearly every single vendor we spoke with was on a similar journey. They were all creating a product for the first time, learning to sell it for the first time, figuring out licensing for the first time, engaging in marketing for the first time, and the farmers market was present at nearly the exact same spot in their journey.

Take for instance Janet. Janet makes juice, and before selling her juice at the farmers market she was simply making it for friends at a potluck. Her friends encouraged her to start selling it because it was so good, but she “Wasn’t so sure about all of that.” Janet had never started a business or sold a product, and she was going to have to learn all of those skills for the first time. She eventually did decide to join a monthly pop-up market, and quickly applied to the farmers market to start selling weekly. She says she chose HOPE Farmers Market because she knew it was an easier market to get into than others, and it was cheaper as well.  Over the last few years, HOPE has allowed her to come a long way. It’s provided her with an infrastructure, a steady side-income, a place to interact with customers and solicit their feedback, and it has also allowed her to learn from her fellow vendors. Today, she is in conversation with brick-and-mortar grocery stores and is excited about the potential of growing her business even more. 

Here is how we mapped out her journey with her product and her business:

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We went through the same process for another vendor, Jessie, who had a surprisingly similar story.

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Lastly, we spoke with someone named Walter who had been at HOPE for nearly 8 years. He’s built his Kombucha business and he’s grown well beyond the market into restaurants and stores. But, when we drew out his business growth based on the conversations we had with him, what we found is that he, too, came to HOPE Farmers Market around the same time in his business journey. Walter has been at it longer, and has demonstrated what is possible for a vendor after participating at HOPE.

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We approached this “Service Slice” assignment as an academic exercise, with no end goals of what to get out of it. What we found, was that mapping out the conversations, particularly with the vendors we spoke to, pulled out more patterns than we had recognized by just reading or listening to the conversations.

Our next step will be to take everything we’ve learned thus far, and move to the next step of the process–insights. We’ll arrive there by thinking about the patterns that have emerged in our research, and using our intuition to to assert why that might be happening.

If we are being honest with you though, we might have started to move just a bit ahead. Our intuition is kicking in whether we like it or not. HOPE Farmers Market seems to fall at the same place along each of these business owners’ journeys. It creates a framework for them. It creates collaboration through unintentional collision. Could it be? Might it be? Is HOPE an informal incubator space without even knowing it?